The invasion was coming, and poison the only solution

Robert Johnson
Special to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
The only defense against the devastating horde of grasshoppers during the drought in Wisconsin back in 1934, was a bait that would wipe out the insects.

It was a report that no farmer wanted to hear, but the truth of the matter was that they had to hear it. They had to know it was coming. Farmers who were caught unaware only doomed themselves, their families and their farms to a painful loss.

On radios and in print across the country, the terrible news was made known. There was an invasion coming, and farms were on the front line of the battle. In June of 1934, reports throughout the United States — including Wisconsin and Door County — indicated the grasshopper population was going to be unusually heavy.

The attack was coming. It was only a matter of time.

Weather conditions in Wisconsin were exceptionally favorable for the preservation of grasshopper egg pods, so in some parts of the state, at least, considerable grasshopper damage was likely to occur unless precautions were taken to destroy the insects, according to H.P. Wilson of the Wisconsin College of Agriculture.

Wilson suggested that if grasshoppers appeared abundant in any section, the county agent in that section should be consulted immediately regarding methods of control.

Grasshoppers can be found throughout North America in gardens, fields, woodlands and basically any other area with vegetation. Because they can live and travel to a variety of areas in search of food, they can be difficult to control. If one area doesn't suit them, they can simply go to another garden or field until they find one they prefer.

Even if the population in a garden or field is eliminated, others may follow in a short while, causing frustrations for gardeners and farmers alike. Because they travel as a swarm, total devastation can result.

Since adult grasshoppers will feed on a variety of vegetative plants including grasses and weeds, the symptoms of grasshopper damage can be widespread and diverse. Their preferences include beans, sweet corn, lettuce and carrots, so when leaves of these plants appear chewed, there is a very good chance that the grasshoppers are the culprits. They make holes in the tissue of the plant as well as the leaves.

In a smaller home garden where there may only be a few grasshoppers, damage may be limited and the plants may be able to survive their nibbling. In cases of large infestations, particularly in fields or very large gardens, grasshoppers can decimate the area, eating almost everything that is edible.

In 1934, in every township in Door County, a "campaign was being waged against grasshoppers. They are with us in countless numbers. The undertaking was a gigantic one, but worked out very successfully. Mr. John H. Lilly of the College of Agriculture is in the county and assisted farmers with the campaign. All townships were underway in the mixing program and the bait is being spread by farmers who have infestations of this troublesome insect."

The state was experiencing a drought, and it made the farmers' situation even more perilous. Grasshoppers thrive in dry climates, and crops struggling in extremely dry soil were very susceptible to the invasion. A swarm of grasshoppers can be quite aggressive, and rising heat plus lack of rain draws them into crops.

Rain would not drown grasshoppers; their eating would be somewhat slowed, but they would return on the first warm, bright day. Therefore, praying for rain to stop the invasion would not work.

The only defense against the devastating horde was a bait that would wipe out the insects. Livestock was not endangered by spreading poisoned bait as long as the farmers followed directions.

In those days, northern Door County, as well as all of Wisconsin, was afflicted year after year with a scourge of grasshoppers. It did not matter how much the farmers toiled and sowed, the grasshoppers took the bulk of the harvest. A grasshopper plague was a general calamity that had to be stopped if possible.

As the summer moved into fall, in many northern counties the hoppers were almost as serious a problem as the drought. Yet the small, round, Intelligent face of Entomologist Chambers shone with pleasure as he spoke of the success of the state's campaign to save farm crops from the grasshoppers.

"The campaign was more extensive and successful than last year's. We saved most of the drought emergency crops as well as most of what the drought left of the first crops. The emergency crops would have been ruined if we hadn't put out the hopper poison," Chambers said.

In 1938, millions of grasshoppers rode the wind, devastating crops.

More than 6,000 tons of grasshopper poison were spread on Wisconsin fields that year, according to Chambers. While the federal government was mixing its poison with 2,500 tons of high-priced wheat bran, the state was using inexpensive whey and sawdust to complete its poison bait. The result was not only a savings but a more tempting lure for the hungry young hoppers.

Farmers found dead grasshoppers everywhere, and natural grasshopper parasites finished the work that the poisoning campaign began. Reflecting on past years of infestation, including chinch bugs, the state officials were relieved by the success of the campaign against the hoppers, but they hoped farmers wouldn’t assume the war had been won and they wouldn’t have to fight the grasshoppers again next year.

The egg had been laid, and next year it would be another battle. Weary farmers knew that. Experience had taught them that on the farm, predators, both insects and the four-legged kind, were everywhere. It was part of the farming life.

From the pages of the Door County Advocate of years gone by.